The Tipping Point

If I needed any further motivation to continue watching my carbon footstep then 2021, the year that felt like climate change had arrived in the wealthy West, had encouragement to give in sobering abundance. I wrote most this article in the week when the river Essen burst its’ banks in Germany, leading to hundreds of deaths attributed to an extreme weather event precipitated by climate change [1]. In the last month 480 excess deaths due to extreme heat were recorded in British Columbia over a five day period [2]. As I sat at Manchester Piccadilly train station, the irony of fanning myself with the Extinction Rebellion manifesto I’d just finished reading on one of the most sweltering days I’ve spent in the UK in living memory was not lost on me. Today’s hot weather was an insight into what an uphill struggle we might have with active travel – and life in general – if ambient temperatures do rise. Stepping out of an air-conditioned restaurant that was virtually empty and into the sweltering street, sticky, hot and still, the prospect of exercising – walking or cycling – to the station could seem a little unattractive compared to hailing a taxi and feeling the cool breeze on my face through an open window for the short journey. Yet as far as the climate is concerned, it’s a no-brainer.

As a child in the 1990s I watched scenes of drought, crop failure and famine causing human devastation across the African continent during ads for Oxfam and appeals for Comic Relief. At the time I just believed that – due to poverty, ruthless dictators, feckless political leaders, whatever else might have been the dominant narrative at the time – life had always been this way in these seemingly uninhabitable places. It’s only in the past few years have I begun to understand that these droughts and famines, exacerbated perhaps by political instability or civil war, were the early effects of anthropogenic climate change [3]. They were a window into what nature might have in store for the rest of us. It’s a shame we were too busy pointing the finger at the post-colonial governments that we’d often destabilised to pay any attention to the climate stuff.

A delay to today’s service is announced on the tannoy as we stall at Preston: due to a trackside fire upstream in Scotland [4] we’re to be 30 minutes late getting going. At time of writing there’s no suggestion that it was a deliberate fire.

A quick peruse of the recent climate headlines might leave one on the edge of meltdown but I can say first-hand that there’s been progress in the active travel domain. I’ve just returned from a trip to the High Peak – you might remember a post 18 months ago in which I lambasted the region as perhaps the Most Lethal Place in the World to Pedal Through (I think I blamed Jeremy Clarkson). I’m delighted to say that the cycling was much less death-defying this time round. Nay, I’d even call it delightful! (A coincidence that during the intervening period Clarkson has swapped motormouthing from the driving seat of whatever supercar for the rather more stationary presenter’s seat on Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? I think not…). I cycled through the centre of Manchester (a city unparalleled outside of London for being unpleasant to drive through) with ease, cruising along intuitive cycle infrastructure around Piccadilly and Oxford Road, roads with almost as many cyclists as drivers. And this summer it seems that the trains are busier than ever with folk with bicycles (all the more reason to check with your rail provider if you need to book a bike reservation in advance, guys!). Train operators (I’m looking at you in particular, Avanti) have made big improvements to travelling by bike, such as having stewards at the station proactively approach people with bikes to tell them where on the platform to wait to board the train; such as providers designating seats nearest the bike storage area for people travelling with bikes. ScotRail have recently unveiled new active travel trains with more space for passengers travelling with sports equipment such as, but not limited to, bicycles [5].

Significant barriers still remain. Some parts of the country are still woefully under-resourced when it comes to train travel. I’ve just travelled from New Mills, a commuter town in the Peak District in Derbyshire with a population of about 12,300 people which is served by two rail stations, providing hourly local services to nearby Stockport and Sheffield, and half-hourly services to Manchester, even on a Sunday. Yet Dumfries, a town with a population of 50,000 people, has one rail station which makes hourly journeys to Carlisle and two-hourly ones to Glasgow. Dumfries & Galloway is a large, rural, sparsely-populated Scottish local authority area of almost 150,000 people serviced by 9 rail stations across three unconnected lines that link up the region north to south but not east to west, making travel by rail within most of the region impractical or impossible.

In Dumfries & Galloway you can travel by rail north-to-south but not east-to-west, which is a shame because D&G is at least twice as wide as it is long.

A Doonhamer* or tourist wishing to experience the delights of the Galloway Forest park, Castle Douglas high street or Mull of Galloway by bike could take their bike on the 500 bus service running east to west between Dumfries and Stranraer. Or could we? Some of the buses, which run 2-hourly, are coaches which can stow bikes. Some are regular buses that can’t. Know how to find out in advance? Us neither. It’s not advertised on the timetable, and neither the bus operator nor the local regional transport partnership are able to tell us before we leave home, leaving the would-be cycle tourist to turn up at the bus stop on a wing and a prayer and hope to be able to board. Failing that, wait another two hours for the next service, which one may or may not be able to board. Dumfries and Galloway have made great strides towards protecting our natural environment with initiatives such as nature-friendly farming, Biosphere communities and community forest ownership, but the bus-bike thing is less than ideal.

Rural obstacles notwithstanding, at halfway through the year and my Paris Climate Agreement challenge I’m still on track to meet my target (just).

Travel carbon allowance to end of June: 2190.5 car miles or equivalent

Carbon allowance used at end of June: 1865.9** car miles or equivalent

I step off the train at Carlisle a little late but having enjoyed the ‘me-time’ that seems for some reason so much more precious because you’re in motion, to an announcement that some other services today are delayed as they can’t travel at usual speeds due to excessive temperatures. A couple of days later I’ll be working on a hospital ward populated with an unusually high number of elderly patients with acute kidney injury due to dehydration.

And it gets me thinking, in a few years’ time will we look back on this year and feel like we’ve done enough for our climate?

Monday 19 July, 2021

*A Doonhamer is a resident of Dumfries

**I’ve had to make a correction to previous estimates of the carbon footprint attributable to train travel – a previous calculation I quoted suggests that train travel emits, on average, 1/65th of the carbon emissions of car travel per person – which did sound too good to be true, didn’t it? A review of other sources [6] suggests that the carbon footprint of train travel is more like 1/3 that of car travel, on average.

[1] BBC News, 16 July 2021 Europe floods: At least 120 dead and hundreds unaccounted for. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-57858829

[2] BBC News, 30 June 2021 Canada heatwave: Hundreds of sudden deaths recorded https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-57668738

[3] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2014. The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report: What’s in it for Africa? https://cdkn.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/AR5_IPCC_Whats_in_it_for_Africa.pdf

[4] Daily Record, 22 July 2021. Troon station fire probe demanded by union following reports it was unstaffed at time of blaze. https://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/scottish-news/troon-station-fire-probe-demanded-24591756

[5] Scotrail, 2021. We are currently working with Transport Scotland to bring the UK’s first active travel carriages to Scotland’s west coast. https://www.scotrail.co.uk/class-153

[6] Calculating an accurate carbon footprint across different modes of transport while still having a life is technically challenging. There are lots of variables to take into account, such as vehicle size, fuel type and age, and occupancy of car, train or bus. When calculating equivalences I’ve used the LNER carbon calculator (https://www.lner.co.uk/tickets-savings/the-best-way-to-travel/our-commitment-to-the-environment/) for trains, Carbon Independent (https://www.carbonindependent.org/sources_ferry.htm) for ferries and this helpful BBC article (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-49349566) for everything else.

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